On the eve of World War II, the American writer Henry Miller decided to accept the invitation of his friend, the British writer Lawrence Durrell who wrote “The Alexandria Quartet”, to spend a period of time with him on the island of Corfu. The trip to Corfu, where he spent eight months touring Greece, turned into what critics consider to be the most important book written by Miller and one of the most important travel books; “The Colossus of Maroussi”.
Miller left Paris, where he used to live, for Marseille by train. From there he travelled by ship to Piraeus Port near Athens. Amongst the passengers that accompanied him on his journey were a group of Syrian and Lebanese students who had been in France and were returning to their countries. What united them? What united them in 1939 is what unites them now: not one of them wanted to return permanently and all of them wanted to emigrate to America.
Miller hated America and resented life there and therefore moved to Paris. They kept on asking him to tell them about America and he tried to convince them that it was different to what they thought it was like or the opposite of what they thought. They said that there was no future in their countries, nothing but poverty, and he assured them that nothing was guaranteed in America.
The ship completed its journey to Beirut, and Miller boarded a ship to Corfu, where he was greeted at the harbour that was crowded with people and livestock by Lawrence Durrell and his wife.
The couple used to live in a village on the island that no one used to visit. However, this is exactly what their American guest, who had dreamed of taking a full year-long holiday after twenty years of hard work, wanted.
From time to time, he would go to the empty island’s centre which would later become packed with tourists. The beautiful beach was full of flocks of sheep, herds of goats, poor people and fear. Fear that world war could erupt at any moment. Greece was a weak country and did not know what side it was on in order to protect itself.
Miller travelled to Athens from time to time, and there he met the poet of Greece Katsimbalis whom he named the “The Colossus of Maroussi”. He transformed Maroussi into an impressive figure that the book bearing his name revolves around.
I have not read a biography where the writer is impressed with a semi-fictional character to the extent that Miller was. When I visited Athens in the seventies, I asked my friends for the name of the café that the poet used to sit in and where people used to gather around him in order to listen to him.
That day I wrote about the cafe in the Parisian issue of “The Future” and about waiting for Maroussi who did not come. A few days before that, I received a letter that had been lost for a long time before it reached me, Maroussi still did not come. Our group of friends shrank; some could no longer stand cafes, others could no longer stand Athens and no one could stand us except for chairs and books. Do you remember what Miller wrote about a haircut in Corfu costing 3 cents? Try and guess the price of a cup of coffee here today!